I dream of a time when I can wake up the morning after a music awards show and not find my news feed full of shock and dismay over the latest incidence of pop star-perpetrated racism. In the meantime, we need to talk about Katy Perry.
Perry opened the AMAs with a visually stunning performance of “Unconditionally” in which she approximated the appearance of a Japanese geisha. She wore a kimono, although it had a different neckline from the traditional geisha one. She wore white face makeup and red lipstick, but unlike actual geishas, who only put lipstick on their lower lip, Perry’s lip were in full color. And she combined the Asian up-do associated with Japanese geishas with Zooey Deschanel-style bangs.
But Perry is certainly not the first Westerner to misrepresent the geisha. The history of the Japanese geisha is long and complicated; the term has not always meant the same thing, and even today, competing definitions exist. Due to the popularity of “geesha girls” among GIs during World War II, most Westerners conflate geishas with prostitutes, when in reality the only consistent aspect of the definition of geisha is “performer.” Geishas are in fact impeccably well-trained entertainers.
As in the history of Western theater, women performers in Japan have often been connected with prostitution. In both cases this is partly because at various points in the history of women on stage the performers were actually also prostitutes. During the English Restoration, women first appeared on stage primarily as titillating spectacle, often adorned in jewels provided by their rich lovers/sponsors. Likewise, at various points in Japanese history, geishas have provided sexual services in addition to performative entertainment. But geishas and actors in general have also been connected to prostitution partly because being an artist to some extent involves selling yourself, with your body being an important part of what is being sold.
So perhaps Perry mimics geishas because she recognizes in them the same elaborate traditions of costume, makeup, dance, singing, and erotic performance, to a commercial end, of which she is a part. But when compared to the patriarchal structures that surround the careers of American female pop singers, something striking emerges about the society of the geisha: modern geishas both live and work within a matriarchal culture in which all decisions are made by women.
In all probability, Perry worked with a team of collaborators/money-makers in shaping her Orientalist (evocative of the Western idea of an exotic Orient without adhering to any real accuracy) performance. Whether or not they were aware of it’s implications is debatable, but I can see at least three problems with it. First, Perry is not Japanese, meaning that she essentially performed in “yellow face”: Though she wore white makeup, just as geishas do, she appropriated a culture of which she is not a part in order not to honor it but simply to create spectacle. Just as Cyrus, without wearing blackface, pretended to be black at the MTV Video Music Awards, Perry at the AMAs pretended to be Asian. (At the AMAs, Cyrus merely, in the words of one friend’s child, “forgot her pants.”)
Second, the idea of Japanese culture as pure spectacle is problematic in that it furthers Western assumptions about Asians as an exotic race that exists merely to provide pleasure to Westerners. Their objectification implies that they can be both consumed and shaped to our Western will. Furthermore, during the height of Western imperialism, art and entertainment were considered feminine pursuits, whereas government, business, and science were deemed masculine, making Asians, according to the logic of the patriarchy, inferior to Westerners and therefore in need of our civilizing influence.
Finally, there’s the context of the song. I happen to love “Unconditionally” and Katy Perry’s voice. But to juxtapose a song about a woman giving herself up completely to a man—loving him regardless of how he treats her—with the stereotyped image of Asian submissiveness is seriously problematic. I cannot imagine that Perry knows how much power modern geishas actually have over their own lives or the profound influence they’ve had on Japanese theater, and I’m pretty sure the AMA audience doesn’t know those things either. Therefore the iconography, in context of the lyrics, must be taken to represent what it does for most Westerners: Servility.
Still, many twitter commentators have asked, “So what? So she’s recycling tired stereotypes. Who is she really hurting?” The thing is, performances on this scale that reach this many people can have a profound impact on the culture at large—and not just on the arts but also on social and political belief systems.
Perry invoked the same stereotypes that Westerners have used for centuries to justify political and military control over Asian countries. It is no coincidence that the Orientalist musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein (South Pacific, The King and I, and Flower Drum Song) were written in the late ‘40s and ‘50s and remained popular into the ‘60s, during the time of the Korean War, the Cold War, and eventually, the war in Vietnam. By presenting Asians as servile, feminine, and politically inept, these musicals, nothwithstanding their other virtues, relayed powerful messages to Americans about the need for foreign intervention to stop the spread of communism in Asia.
Supposedly, we are no longer an imperial nation. And yet we maintain an outpost in South Korea, we vie for economic dominance with China. So why does it matter if Westerners mistakenly understand Asians as submissive, exotic, and there for our taking? I guess you’d have to ask the South Vietnamese whether it mattered that Americans saw them not as people with their own history and culture but rather as a front in an ideological war turned literal. I think it did. You could also ask any of your female Asian-American friends whether it matters that a lot of American men see them as submissive sexualized objects without any individually defining characteristics. I think it does.
Perry may subliminally see herself in the icon of the geisha as elaborate performance artist, but I wonder if she also subliminally sees herself in the image of the prostitute—the woman who must sell herself to a consumer culture eager to read onto her whatever narrative the consumer desires. Chris Gayomali at The Week suggests that “Neither her circle nor the show's producers had the common sense to say, 'Hey, you know what? This might not be such a bright idea,'" but I'm not so sure someone didn't realize it might be offensive and chose to let it go ahead anyway. It has gotten to the point that if a pop star invokes race in any way at all, she is sure to dominate the headlines for a while. Therefore I cannot absolve the creators of this most recent spectacle of responsibility for the impact of their choices. Whether the intent was to make visually interesting art or to garner the attention that comes with pop’s ever-increasingly racialized performances, in regurgitating Orientalist stereotypes, Perry participated in the commodification and symbolic colonization of real people and real history.
Esteemed Orientalist (see The Good Person of Szechwan) Bertolt Brecht once said that all artists are essentially prostitutes. But geishas are not a universal symbol of devotion and unconditional love; they do not exist merely to represent a Western idea of femininity and passivity. They are women with real lives, real histories, and a real art form that defies Western conceptions and appropriations. Artist-prostitute or not, I think Katy Perry can do better.